What’s going on? Leading by paying attention.

“Talk to me, so you can see

Oh, what's going on

What's going on…


Oh, you know we've got to find a way

To bring some understanding here today”

Marvin Gaye


What makes a great leader is a key topic in advising executives and one that is top of mind these days, especially with the upcoming elections, pressure in the markets, guiding clients through the challenges faced in 2015 and coming in 2016, and a never-ending pursuit to develop CEOs and leaders. A recent article in the Sunday New York Times, “How to cultivate the art of Serendipity” (Kennedy, particularly resonated. The article’s tag line “Innovation isn’t all hard work or dumb luck: It’s about paying attention” struck a note. “Paying attention” is what much of my early training encompassed as an organizational clinician. Noting what dynamics occur in groups, in teams, interpersonally, etc., is a critical skill. “Paying attention” or “listening below the surface” (Jon Stokes, “What is unconscious in organizations?” In: What makes consultancy work – understanding the dynamics.) is also part of honing one’s trade. In a recent interview with the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (!/story/kaija-saariaho-mtc-ears-open/), she recognized that her innovations in music came from keeping her “ears open” and years of experimentation composing for the experience of playing, as opposed to delivering finished pieces for the audience. For her, paying attention to the experience of performing music was paramount. Being exceptional at what we do requires a symbiotic relationship with the dynamic forces at play in what we do—consciously or unconsciously paying attention to the spaces in between, to the “unthought known” (Bollas), to the not heard but present, and to the varied contours and arcs of the stories in which we work.


In order to pay attention to the complexity occurring around us, we must be aware of so much…

  • My own experience and feelings
  • Who I am, including the conscious (and unconscious) parts of myself that I bring
  • People’s reactions to me (and their impact)
  • My reactions to people (and their impact)
  • People’s reactions to each other (and their impact)
  • Both the work and personal relationships in the room
  • The nature of the work (the “task”) in the room
  • The issues (and risks) relating to the work and/or relationships
  • System constraints (technical and otherwise)
  • And so much more…

Yes, there is a lot going on in the room with others. Leaders, especially, should be adept at listening both above and below the surface and have empathy for those with whom they work. This is critically important since the systems in which we work can evoke our best and our worst.


So how do we watch, listen to and understand what is going on in the room, paying attention to the underlying dynamics that are operating, helping and/or hampering? A good place to start is in the emotional social intelligence model, where we develop our capacity for self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. We need to hone our skills in the “Difficult Conversations” (Patton, Stone and Heen) and “Action Learning” (Argyris, et al) models in order to behave in a “mutual” (Model II—“our perspective”) versus a “unilateral” (Model I—“my way”) frame. This includes understanding the power of inquiry (open questions) over advocacy (proving a point) and ensuring that we draw our conclusions from data and not something “inferred” (aka, “The Ladder of Inference”). Another more complex area of development is understanding our “unconscious biases”, those things that we hold below the surface that shape our view of and actions in the world. All of this hinges on how well we know how we view who we are, our identity, which may just be the most difficult task. Understanding who we are and how we relate to others is a life-long pursuit, especially since our identity continually reforms with each major relationship we engage.


As leaders, we must both “pay attention” and make consumable what we “see”. In order to free-up systems and authorize others to manage and lead, information must flow easily between people, teams, departments and stakeholders. Holding on to or controlling information will result in an unsustainable enterprise. This includes technical data, all forms of communications and, yes, emotions! Emotional data is the key to peak performance—the differentiator between average and outstanding performance. Our emotions are the key data for understanding the dynamics occurring below the surface and the key tool for “paying attention”.


“We’ve got to find a way” to pay closer attention to all of the data around us to better understand “what’s going on… to bring some understanding here today.”